Hilary Wu of Orange County, California, comes from a family who lived in Taiwan for hundreds of years. Her boyfriend identifies as a descendent of a wave of people from China who were exiled to Taiwan in the 1940s under the Chinese Nationalist government as the Communists took over mainland China.

But Wu, 40, and her boyfriend discussed that difference only once, over dinner. It doesn’t matter to them. “We’re very different in how we grew up, and we’re different people, but that doesn’t affect our values, our morals,” said Wu, a hospital dietician who moved to California with her parents when she was a child.

But the two groups’ historical differences and ongoing tensions became evident outside of Taiwan on Sunday when a gunman opened fire at a Taiwanese Presbyterian church gathering in Southern California, where Wu lives. The suspected shooter was born and raised in Taiwan and had ties to pro-China groups, Taiwanese media outlets say. The parishioners he is accused of shooting descended from families who had lived in Taiwan for centuries.

Authorities said David Wenwei Chou, 68, of Las Vegas, was arrested and accused of killing one man, 52-year-old Dr. John Cheng, who tackled the suspect, allowing others to subdue him, according to The Associated Press. Five others were injured.

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes cited a grievance between the shooter, a U.S. citizen, and the Taiwanese community. The suspect “was upset about political tensions involving China and Taiwan,” the sheriff’s department said in a statement on Monday.

 

British Presbyterians who reached Taiwan in 1865 made strong connections with local Taiwanese and advocated the island’s independence from China, author-historian Christine Louise Lin wrote in her book “The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan and the Advocacy of Local Autonomy.” 

“I don’t like to think of this as a hate crime, but it’s a hate crime,” Wu said. “There’s a political aspect in the (background), but this person is also crazy. I was very shocked to find out it’s another Asian American taking something out on Taiwanese Americans.”

Taiwan’s domestic differences

The divide has influenced domestic politics, education and other facets of life in Taiwan since the 1940s.

In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government fled mainland China and took control of the island after fleeing Mao Zedong’s Communists in the Chinese civil war. The Nationalists kept Taiwan under authoritarian rule until democratizing in the 1980s.

Taiwanese with hundreds of years of history on the island, also identified as “benshengren,” favor today’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party. That party opposes pledges by the modern Chinese government to capture the island by force if needed. The Nationalists, or “waishengren,” many who hail from China and settled in Taiwan with Chiang, take a more conciliatory stance toward China.

Paul Yang, 52, a Taiwanese-born real estate agency owner in Orange County, has lived in the United States for 31 years and knows people connected to the church where the shooting occurred. The president of the Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce of Orange County, Yang says his 200 members seldom discuss politics in public settings.

Yang still identifies as a benshengren but says he seldom hears the term anymore.

“When I go back to Taiwan and talk to younger generations, the terms ‘bensheng’ and ‘waisheng’ are not as commonly used as when I was a kid,” he said.

The two groups of Taiwanese people have no “real issues” in the United States, said Chien Minze, president of the Washington-based Taiwan advocacy organization Formosan Association for Public Affairs. He knows of no other U.S. incident like the shooting. “We respect each other,” he said, referring to the two groups. “There is nothing like we have (to) go to this extreme.”

Rekindling friction in Taiwan

In Taiwan, the shooting will likely make people think about the divide again, said Chao Chien-min, dean of social sciences at Chinese Cultural University in Taipei. Domestic news reports will focus on that angle, he predicted, and the island’s political parties might bring it up on their own.

“What I’m worried about is this: The incident in California will strengthen a vicious cycle,” Chao said. “This shooting was politically motivated to start with, and the interpretation of it in Taiwan is that it’s political. Everything related to Taiwan-mainland China relations is politicized.”

The ruling party of Taiwan said in a social media statement that it “condemned” any form of violence but did not elaborate on the political angle.

Sunday’s shooting may alarm the Taiwanese about fringe political activists who have mainland Chinese sympathies and support unifying Taiwan and China, said Sean Su, an independent political analyst in Taiwan. Su said followers of a pro-China group broke his windows when he was living in New York 15 years ago.

“These groups tend to be radicalized in the United States,” Su said. “A lot of Taiwanese groups have undergone a lot of harassment and undergone lot of threats from these pro-China unification groups over the years.”

Unanswered questions

Peggy Huang, a Taiwanese American City Council member in Yorba Linda, a suburban city near the shooting site, called politics a likely “oversimplification” of reasons behind the shooting. She wonders particularly how a suspect from Las Vegas picked a church in Laguna Woods for his assault. The city of 16,000 is attractive to retirees, and Taiwanese churches operate in other parts of Orange County.

“He might no doubt have some hateful feeling toward Taiwanese people,” said Huang. “But for him to specifically come to this church? This is not an easy church to find. That’s the topic of conversation among us.”

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